Playing Martha: Figuring Out the U.S. Worlds Team

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The U.S. senior women will head to the ranch on Monday for the World Championships selection camp.

Of the 13 senior women who competed at national championships, all will be in attendance but Maggie Nichols, who dislocated her kneecap on floor at Pan Ams.

After the brief domestic competitive season and an international trial at the Pan American Championships, the selection camp is the final test before the team heading to China is named on September 17.

The coming week is all about deciding who among the 12 still standing get to compete, and though the puzzle once looked impossible to solve with the incredible depth of Team USA, it turns out this will actually be the easiest team decision in recent history.

Only six U.S. women are at the level of international preparedness required for a competition like World Championships – Alyssa Baumann, Madison Kocian, MyKayla Skinner, Ashton Locklear, 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross, and reigning world/national champion Simone Biles. These six are included on the nominative team list released earlier this week along with Madison Desch, likely being considered as an alternate along with Amelia Hundley.

The one wrench we can expect to be thrown in is Brenna Dowell. After injuring her ankle earlier this summer, Dowell was relegated only to bars, where she hit just one out of three routines without error. Her one hit routine was worthy of event finals, but the other two were rough to the point of being scary.

Dowell said she wasn’t bothered by how her routines this summer went. She knows it was injury that held her back, and was holding off on competing the all-around until the camp in an effort to prevent further injury.

If she’s fully back, she’ll be hard to leave behind. Her Amanar is sorely needed, she could put up a solid number on floor, and if she proves to be consistent on bars, she could be an event finals contender without a doubt.

Who would she replace if she shows she’s ready to go? Obviously, Biles is a lock. Do I even need to explain why? The same goes for Ross, who will be integral in the team final, and no one can replace Skinner on vault and floor or Locklear on bars.

That leaves WOGA ladies Kocian and Baumann. Kocian is lovely on bars, but she only competes two events and her beam is never quite where it needs to be. Baumann has a gorgeous beam set and could go up on any event if needed, but aggravated her elbow at nationals and was forced to sit out Pan Ams.

If Dowell were to show up at the camp looking ready to go, it’s clear she’d go over Kocian, not Baumann. Baumann has much more to offer and fills a hole on beam, a surprisingly weak event for the U.S. team this year. While Kocian has nice skills there, I’m afraid her routine overall is typically lacking, as she is often a victim of her own nerves. She showed at Pan Am qualifications that she can do well when she really focuses, but then unfortunately reminded us of her earlier performances this year with her shaky Pan Ams event finals routine.

Baumann is the clear choice, and a team with her alongside Biles, Ross, Skinner, Locklear, and a healthy/consistent Dowell could be epic. Because I know the gymternet will ask for my potential lineups, check it out:

Vault: Skinner, Dowell, Biles
Bars: Ross, Dowell, Locklear
Beam: Ross, Baumann, Biles
Floor: Baumann/Ross/Dowell, Skinner, Biles

My vault choices are obvious, but my reasoning for the rest? Ross would be the perfect lead-off athlete on bars and beam, as her difficulty’s not quite up there at the moment but you know she’ll hit and provide a good starting point for potentially high-scoring routines from Dowell and Locklear on bars and Baumann and Biles on beam.

On floor, I like the insurance of three potential leadoffs. None of these are rockstar floor workers, but all can put up solid scores in the mid-14 range if they hit. All three could be tested in qualifications and the one with the strongest results goes up in finals before Skinner and Biles.

This is wishful thinking, of course, largely because I have a great personal love for Dowell’s bars, as they’re easily the most exciting U.S. routine in years even if they’re not necessarily the most polished. But even I can admit that she won’t be up to speed, so let’s take a look at how it’d look without her.

Vault: Ross, Skinner, Biles
Bars: Ross, Kocian, Locklear
Beam: Ross, Baumann, Biles
Floor: Ross/Baumann, Skinner, Biles

Here, you can see just how much depth is lost with Kocian only going up on one event as opposed to Dowell’s potential three just by the fact that Ross now becomes someone the team relies on too much. Also, with this lineup, Team USA has two one-event specialists both on bars, which seems a bit excessive.

These are the two most likely scenarios for the U.S. team, though there is one possibility we still have to consider. What if Nichols is able to be petitioned on?

Petitions directly onto a team are rare, though not technically unheard of. Nichols’ injury isn’t necessarily season-ending; those who have had similar injuries said their recovery time was around three weeks. Nichols was injured about two weeks before the camp is set to begin, so while she wasn’t quite ready to make it to Texas, she very well could be healthy enough to go to China.

It’s a long shot, because there’s “recovered” and then there’s “recovered well enough to compete at the most important gymnastics meet of the year,” but if she does get better, her accomplishments over the summer more than stand up, and Martha Karolyi knows it.

However, would she be much of a help to the team? While she is one of the strongest all-arounders in the country, there are no events on which she truly stands out. She’s the kind of gymnast I’d put up on every single event in qualifications but on no events in team finals, as on each one there are three gymnasts who are ever-so-slightly stronger. It’s a bit like Elizabeth Price’s situation in 2012, where she could hold her own among the top all-arounders in the U.S. but didn’t have any events that would make her an absolute must in team finals.

Nichols has a DTY, but Ross’ is nicer. Her bars are difficult and typically solid, but she doesn’t quite match Locklear, Ross, Kocian, or Dowell. Her difficulty and execution on beam are no match for Ross, Biles, and Baumann, and while her floor usually brings in a solid 14.5 on average, it’s something Baumann matches and Ross can beat when she hits.

If Nichols can be petitioned but Dowell is still down for the count, I think she’ll go in Kocian’s place as the one dependable gal who could go up anywhere as needed even if she’s not a first choice for team finals. But I think even if she does have a miraculous recovery, it would be smart to let her heal completely rather than throwing her back out there on an unstable knee. She’d be a great choice for the World Cup meets later this year if World Championships aren’t in the cards.

What about the alternates? They’ll want an all-arounder, that’s for sure. Hundley beat Desch at nationals, but Desch had a stronger performance at Pan Ams (Desch did the all-around in Canada while Hundley stuck to every event but bars, but on vault, beam, and floor alone, Desch was the stronger of the two). If a bars athlete is injured and can’t go up in team finals, Biles can always be counted on to put up a solid score. But is Desch consistent enough to trust on beam or floor? This is actually a more difficult puzzle than the team itself; I’d personally go with Hundley based on her past results, though she has had a very rough start to her first senior year while coming back from injury, so Desch might be the solution.

The most ideal team scenario is one that includes Biles, Ross, Skinner, Locklear, Baumann, and a healthy Dowell, but if Dowell struggles to get back her all-around in time, I think Kocian is a viable option even if I do think the team could use the security of another athlete with more than two events.

I do think that while this U.S. team has been affected by season-ending injuries and retirements leading to some of the program’s top athletes missing out this year (Price, McKayla Maroney, Lexie Priessman, Rachel Gowey), this is still a group of young ladies who will be able to defeat other teams that are even worse-off due to their own issues typical for top teams in the middle of the quad. It’s thanks to U.S. depth that the nation is still able to field a top-tier team even in the midst of minor calamity.

Who would you send if you were Martha Karolyi? Choose six in our poll below!

Article by Lauren Hopkins

11 thoughts on “Playing Martha: Figuring Out the U.S. Worlds Team

  1. Did you get into Marta character mode in order to think like her? I’d need to put on the accent and wear a pink/purple tracksuit in order to think up some possible team scenarios.

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  2. I’m not feeling as confident about the US ladies defending their title as Team World Champions as I was a month or so ago. I think that they can defend it – it’s just that Russia was a lot better than I expected at their nationals, China seems to have a good line up, and the US is really lacking world class athletes right now. Besides Biles and Ross, no one seems up to our normal standards. I felt like Pan Ams was a bit of an embarrassment and all the athletes demonstrated the huge possibility of a head case from someone at Worlds. In thinking about Worlds last year and how Martha’s strategy was to use fewer athletes rather than to take risks or put up routines she didn’t feel were world class, then what about this potential scenario: She uses Biles and Ross on every event and then the top woman from the other 4 for each event? So, Skinner on vault (or even Dowell if her amanar scores better); Locklear on bars; Baumann on beam; and Skinner on floor. That would lower the D score, but also lower the potential for head casing. Then I have her bringing Maggie along to fill in if need be. There just seems to be a strong likelihood of someone just bombing during team finals… Or, I could also see her bringing Dowell instead of Kocian, but actually using Biles on bars and using Dowell elsewhere. I wouldn’t trust Dowell’s bars – she has too much of an inconsistent scoring range. So, if Martha didn’t go for Ross and Biles on every event, then I’d say: Vault: Dowell, Skinner, Biles; Bars: Biles, Ross, Locklear; Beam: Baumann, Biles, Ross; Floor: Ross, Skinner, Biles (I just don’t like Dowell’s floor but she could be subbed in there too). Just pondering!!

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    • I’s like you literally read my mind. I completely agree with everything you said. As much as I love Brenna and her bar set I dont trust trust. It’s like part of me doesnt want her on the team if she’s not 100% but the the other part of me is still mad about last year’s worlds…

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      • I feel so special that I read your mind! I completely agree on being torn about Brenna. I want her to have a chance to shine, but I also don’t think she seems totally prepared.

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  3. So is it certain that Kocian won’t be doing AA at camp? I thought she was just holding off at nationals because of the slight tweak to her ankle at classics?

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  4. This article is essentially the exact thing I’ve been predicting as well, but I’m thinking its slightly more likely we’ll see Kocian as the sixth member over Dowell because I’m having trouble picturing her being in All-Around shape and we all know how inconsistent her bar set has been. Furthermore, I’ve sort of been pondering the potential for Maggie Nichols to be petitioned onto the team as the alternate. To me, she’s the logical best choice for that role over Hundley or Desch.

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    • Yeah, I think while I personally prefer a team with Dowell, realistically Kocian is much more prepared, especially if she can end up doing FX at the ranch. I’d also much rather see Nichols as alternate than Hundley or Desch and hope she’s in the shape I’ve heard she’s in, which is not physically ready for camp, but quickly on the way to healing and could be good in time for Worlds. I definitely see her as more of an alternate or a qualifications only athlete, so I’m not at a total loss if she has to miss out on the team, but do think she’s definitely earned her place with her excellent domestic competitions this summer.

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